- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2011

It didn’t take long for Miami guard Malcolm Grant to learn something significant about his new coach.

Jim Larranaga can spin a yarn like few others.

“One thing I’ve learned is that with all his stories, there’s always a message to it,” Grant said. “He’s not just talking to hear himself talk. He’s giving us a message for us to be successful in life.”

That’s Larranaga, an accomplished college basketball coach and a professional raconteur whose meandering tales and winning ways made him a beloved figure at George Mason. An unexpected trip to the Final Four in 2006 cemented his legacy at Mason, and his decision in 2008 to spurn Providence (his alma mater) to remain with the Patriots seemed to ensure he’d finish his career in Fairfax.

Well, until April when Larranaga departed to start over at Miami. His first head coaching gig in a power conference begins Nov. 11 when the Hurricanes play host to Tennessee Tech.

The 62-year-old had job security, an avid fan base and many of the pieces returning from a 27-7 team that reached the NCAA tournament’s round of 32. Now, he has the chance to coach in a conference he was plenty familiar with three decades ago as an assistant at Virginia.

“Would my life have been any less significant to my wife or my children or my grandchildren? No,” Larranaga said. “But is it cool to be in the ACC? I can you tell this, when I’m talking to my sons during the interview process, both of my sons said ‘How cool would it be to be in the ACC? How cool would it be to take your team to Cameron Indoor Stadium and to the Dean Dome?’ And my answer was ‘It would be really, really cool if we’re good.’ “

The Hurricanes could thrive this season. Grant and Durand Scott provide the foundation of a deep backcourt that also features Garrius Adams and Rion Brown. Assuming they embrace Larranaga’s emphasis on defense, Miami’s perimeter seems set.

One big caveat — one listed at 6-foot-10 and 284 pounds — exists. Center Reggie Johnson underwent knee surgery over the summer and isn’t expected back until January. Larranaga knows the junior won’t be at full strength immediately upon return, so the Hurricanes can expect a transition period as their rotation adjusts during conference play.

At full strength, Larranaga said he believes Miami could “be a top-25 team and earn an at-large bid.” That would be major progress for a program with one NCAA berth and no winning conference records in the past decade. Last year, Miami was 21-15 and reached the NIT quarterfinals.

“I think we’re going to be a scary team,” Grant said. “A lot of people know that we’re a good team and we’re talented, but we haven’t been able to get over the hump. I think Coach L is the key for us to get over the hump.”

That would the latest chapter in Larranaga’s own saga, a twist anything but telegraphed after a 14-year run at Mason that included five NCAA tournament appearances and a 273-164 record.

He regaled reporters at the ACC’s media day last month with tales of his high school career, how he broke into coaching and even what prompted his penchant for storytelling (it was a parenting technique). But he wouldn’t say his move has reinvigorated him — if only because he believes he was plenty engaged already.

“I’m always enthusiastic,” Larranaga said. “I love doing what I do. I love working with the players. I’m very, very happy I have my staff with me. Starting over at a new program, if I had to bring a new staff and try to teach them while I was teaching players, that wouldn’t have worked.”

Still, it’s a different place with a separate set of challenges. His new school, despite its gaudy conference affiliation, drew more than 1,000 fans fewer per game than Mason last season. Turnovers and defensive 3-point field goal percentage are areas of concern.

But if he can make the Hurricanes a mainstay in the top third of the ACC? That would really be a heck of a story.

“He has a plan, he has a goal,” Scott said. “I think everybody’s just focused and tuned in to listening to him and doing exactly what he wants to do. If all that comes with listening to his stories, then I’m going to listen to stories all day.”

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